Many fitness facility owners, managers and staff members appear to be walking around with their heads in the clouds these days. That is where club member data is going, as health clubs increasingly turn to Internet cloud-based computing systems to do everything from manage billing systems to boost membership and promote club services.

Indeed, cloud-based computing, popularized in large part the past few years by companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, puts both data and applications off-site, allowing a club to access all its data and programs via a growing number of devices (laptops, smartphones, tablets) and from any location with Internet access.

“Long gone are the days of being stuck in the back office or tied to the front desk,” says Rachelle Dodge, marketing manager for ASF International, a Denver-based fitness software company. “The cloud has made it possible to work from home, the coffee shop, the studio floor or anywhere you have Internet access.”

Advantages to cloud computing are numerous, says Kyle Zagrodzky, president of iGo Figure Software, Houston. Cloud-based systems, he says, are faster to install, cheaper to maintain and update, let companies roll out new features more quickly, are generally warmly embraced by users (who now have 24/7 access to their personal member data) and promote the club as forward-thinking and member-focused.

Frank Piringer, a marketing implementation manager for fitness software provider EZ Facility, Bethpage, NY, lists some of the ways fitness club activities are opened up using cloud-based computing. Trainers, he says, can schedule and run a boot camp or class outside the facility—on a beach or in a local park— and use a smartphone to register users, take attendance and send data directly to the home club. Companies with multiple facilities can seamlessly offer services and let users schedule classes at multiple locations using a single interface. Clubs can use cloud-based systems to broadcast photos of their clubs, news of events or special offers, send invoices or billing statements and allow customers to log in any time, day or night, to search for club information.

On Cloud 9

Cloud-based systems also let users store and access workout data that can be sent from a piece of cardio equipment to a smartphone or tablet. Members can store workout goals, chart progress through a series of classes or personal training sessions and use cloud-based systems to schedule, reschedule or cancel appointments. Ties to Facebook and Twitter accounts help the club spread the word on member preferences and recommendations.

Andy Wigderson, vice president of sales and marketing for Houston-based fitness software vendor CSI Software, says these types of interactions are “systems of engagement,” made possible by cloud-based services, as opposed to static data residing within a specific club or location that must be parsed and broadcast from that one location or database to members. Given the ease of scalability and the cost-efficient nature of cloud-based computing, Wigderson suggests all facilities, both large and small, will continue to move to the cloud now and in the future.

“We are at the point where we are pretty much only offering the cloud,” Wigderson says.

Even some equipment manufacturers have gone to the cloud. Technogym, Cesena, Italy, for example, offers its mywellness apps as cloud-based programs. The cloud-based systems are used for the member experience but also for the asset management system for club operators. Precor’s Preva system, which is an entertainment system for members and an asset management system for club owners, also is cloud-based.

Piringer sees the growth of cloud-based computing among fitness clubs as inevitable and inexorable.

“We are seeing a lot of facilities embracing this concept,” he says. “Most of the holdouts are from companies that are technology-impaired anyway. When they are asked to adopt the new platform, it is not the cloud itself they are resisting but rather resistance to new technology directions. The main benefit is that you don’t have to manage your IT infrastructure. It frees you up from having to learn about what the next different version of Windows is.”

Zagrodzky says that the only potential drawbacks to cloud-based computing are concerns about data security and the potential for Internet outages.

Pay Attention to Security

“You still have to pay attention to security,” he warns. “You probably want to have profile-based security, where a trainer has access to the schedule but not to the rest of the customer’s records. You will have some employees who will have higher-level access. You still need strategies like forced changing of passwords. Security can be tight within the system, but you will still want to think about access security at your club.”

Regarding data security, Zagrodzky argues that cloud-based data and services can be seen as more secure than hosted, on-site data and services.

“Data encryption, security permission levels and tokenizing payment processing will put most facilities on solid ground,” Zagrodzky says. “More and more people are handling day-to-day personal and business activities in the cloud. It is most certainly the primary way business will be handled from now on.”

In the case of outages, he says, the proliferation of devices, such as smartphones and mobile hot spots, means localized Internet outages can often be addressed by simply moving to a new location or using a different network or device.

Sean Kirby, who recently was promoted from national sales director to vice president of client relations at ASF International, offers another cloud benefit.

“An important factor for all owners is that cloud-based computing offers data that is mirrored, backed up, stored offsite and encrypted,” he says.

Wigderson perhaps sums it up best.

“We don’t really know where the cloud is going, but we know it is going somewhere positive,” he says. “It is like the beginning of the Internet. There seems to be some great potential and great opportunities.”